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"Spidey Sense" -- The Discovery Files

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With the increasing accessibility of DNA sequencing, University of Cincinnati biologists are unraveling many evolutionary mysteries behind the complex world of spider vision. To further research into gene therapies for visual disorders in humans, scientists have looked 500-million-years into the past to a time called the Cambrian Period to put the evolution of spider eye genes into perspective.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Eye of the spider.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

The next advances in human vision challenges may come from looking a spider right in the eye or eyes. Research out of the University of Cincinnati could help us uncover opportunities for new gene therapies for conditions such as macular degeneration or retinal cancer through unraveling evolutionary mysteries behind the complex world of spider vision.

The team kicked it old school -- real old school -- tracing back to a period more than 500-million-years-ago -- when the spider's ancient arthropod ancestors had two big compound eyes with lots of facets (or light-sensitive units), similar to modern fruit flies. Insects and spiders evolved at the same time during this period. Though the team found both kept the same genetic toolkit for building eyes, in time, the spiders evolved to have eyes up front and on the sides -- multiple eyes with just a few facets.

The researchers say understanding the intricate genetic development could open-up some really cool opportunities: New therapies; new ways to build better vision by engineering organic eyes; tiny visual systems for medical use inside the body and other biotechnologies we've never imagined all based on a blueprint over 500-million-years-old.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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